Joni Mitchell addressed her health difficulties in a rare public speech as she accepted her Kennedy Center Honor, one of the most prestigious awards in American cultural life.
At a ceremony attended by Joe Biden – in a show of support for the arts after the awards were snubbed by Donald Trump – Mitchell discussed the issues she’s faced in the wake of an aneurysm in 2015 that left her temporarily unable to walk or talk.
“I always think that polio was a rehearsal for the rest of my life,” she said, referring to the disease she suffered aged nine. “I’ve had to come back several times from things. And this last one was a real whopper. But, you know, I’m hobbling along but I’m doing all right!”
She described the award as “a fantastic honour … enjoy yourselves, I’m gonna go back and sit down!”
Mitchell hasn’t released a studio album since 2007’s Shine, though two volumes of an ongoing archival project have been released in recent years.
In a conversation with Cameron Crowe that was included on the album Joni Mitchell Archives Vol 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) and published in the Guardian, she spoke more about her health. Mitchell said she was “just inching my way along. I’m showing slow improvement but moving forward … the aneurysm took away a lot more [than polio], really. Took away my speech and my ability to walk. And, you know, I got my speech back quickly, but the walking I’m still struggling with. But I mean, I’m a fighter. I’ve got Irish blood!”
This year’s other recipients at the 44th Kennedy Center Honors were opera singer Justino Díaz, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels and singer Bette Midler.
Midler quoted lyrics from Talking Heads’ song Once in a Lifetime in her acceptance speech, and summarised: “How did I get here? I have absolutely no earthly idea how I got here.” She discussed her “mediocre education”, credited her work ethic (“I had my nose to the grindstone … I worked like a fucking animal”) and discussed the epiphanies she had as a child, including seeing Edith Piaf perform. “I was mesmerised by the idea that someone would get up in a pool of light and be completely and utterly transformed,” she said. “And that, when the light hit them, they had something not just to say – but something to reveal.”
Díaz sang Beva con me from Verdi’s Otello by way of accepting his honour, and Gordy said of his artists and peers at Motown: “We all loved each other, and we fought. ‘Competition breeds champions’ is something we would always say and feel. And we fought hard for the best records, for the best recording, for the best of everything. But we couldn’t let that get in the way of the love. And we all loved each other.”
In a brief speech, Michaels said: “As someone who’s spent his entire career in comedy, when we first entered the room and people began to speak I thought: ‘I really don’t deserve this.’ And then I thought: ‘In a way, you do.’ Thank you very much!”